Return to School, UC System Failures Among Topics Explored at Budget Hearings

The third week of House budget hearings focused on important topics related to the pandemic  – including when students are expected to return to in-person learning and how the Commonwealth is addressing challenges with the  unemployment compensation system.

During the House Appropriations Committee’s budget hearing with Acting Secretary for Education Noe Ortega, the lead-off question was whether a timeline is in place for a return to in-person education for K-12 students. Across Pennsylvania, school districts have employed various models for learning, with some offering full in-person instruction, some offering remote education only and others opting for a hybrid approach. Acting Sec. Ortega and his team explained that the department bases decisions on the level of COVID-19 in communities and is following the most recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control for schools that re-open, including requiring universal mask wearing and social distancing. Secretary Ortega added that the recently announced effort to get teachers and school personnel vaccinated with the first round of Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine doses is being prioritized to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible.

Ortega also recognized the learning gaps that children are experiencing as a result of the pandemic, telling the committee “This is not a loss that can be made up in a few months … we are talking about a generational loss.” The agency is focused on mitigating these challenges to the extent it can, with a PDE official saying that school districts would be provided with tools to identify student learning needs and provide remedial help within a matter of weeks. Other challenges facing school districts and students that were raised at the hearing include ongoing issues with aging educational facilities and a lack of broadband capacity for remote learning.

The governor has made increased education funding a core component of his budget plan, with a proposal to increase the state’s Personal Income Tax rate by nearly 50 percent and allocating $1.3 billion of that money to school districts that would lose money if the state’s new fair funding formula is fully implemented, as the administration proposes.

A House Appropriations hearing with the Department of Labor and Industry focused on frustrations with the department’s ongoing problems processing unemployment compensation claims in a timely manner. A bipartisan contingent of lawmakers on the committee shared stories of constituents who lost their jobs early in the pandemic that still haven’t received the benefits for which they’re eligible.

According to a story in Capitolwire, Acting L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier cited the agency’s struggles with low staffing levels, an unprecedented number of claims; and a still-unfinished modernization of the UC computer system – but added that the agency will not rest until every UC claim has been adjudicated and benefits paid to all those found eligible. She relayed that, to date, there have been 2.43 million initial claims filed under the traditional UC system, out of which 1.18 million have been paid benefits; while another 568,331 have been found ineligible; and 251,302 stopped filing or did not complete their claim. This leaves 44,410 claims that are pending resolution. The federal government has additionally funded roughly $30 billion in other benefits, including for expanded eligibility, extended benefits and weekly enhancements.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the committee pressed the Secretary to correct problems as soon as possible, with Minority Chairman Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, emphasizing the “need to turn this around, and whatever resources, whatever you need, I think there is a willingness to move mountains to make sure these people get help – the level of frustration is out of control.”  

Party lines were more clearly defined at the final budget hearing with state Budget Secretary Jen Swails. While Democrats praised components of Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021 legislative priorities, Republicans focused on the potential for negative economic consequences – namely, the call for a significant minimum wage increase, proposed PIT increase and a severance tax on the natural gas industry. Sec. Swails replied that the governor presents his budget plan as a “starting point” between the administration and the General Assembly.


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